“Don’t allow others to pull you into their storm. Instead, pull them into your peace.”
The majority of us know of the dangers of stress and the impact it has on the human mind. But do you wholly understand what happens to your brain when your adrenal glands release cortisol?
It’s so much worse than anyone could’ve imagined and that’s why researchers worldwide are advocating stress-relieving exercises such as meditation and mindfulness so vehemently. Because both your body and brain are at risk of a serious chemical imbalance that will last a lifetime.
Stress During Childhood
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley discovered that chronic stress during your developmental years significantly impacts the brain’s anatomy and physiology in adulthood. Meaning, that how much daily stress you experienced as a child, may have added to your current emotional disposition.
Research bio-psychologist Daniela Kaufer explains,
“You’re creating a brain that’s either resilient or very vulnerable to mental disease, based on the patterning of white matter you get early in life.”
Daniela Kaufer goes on to explain that when children undergo constant stress when their brains are developing, the plasticity of the brain changes. And with current longitudinal research, there is clear evidence to suggest that there is a link between childhood stress and mental disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders, and even PTSD.
Neuroscientists have known for some time now that stress disorders such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) activate physical changes to your brain. Both the volume and size of the gray matter vs white matter are affected in a negative way. Not only that, but your brain’s emotional processing center is altered as well, resulting in a definite anatomical change for your brain.
If you really think about it, that can be a scary thought. To think that your brain is quite literally changing and shrinking just because of the daily annoyance you experience at work or at home. It all adds up and with enough time, completely alters your brain.
The Neuroscience of Stress
First, you need to understand what your brain is primarily composed of — gray matter and white matter. You hear a lot about the brain’s gray matter but rarely is the importance and effect of the brain’s white matter explained.
So what you need to know is that white matter is the fatty tissue (Myelin sheath) that covers the axons and controls the speed of the flow of electrical signals between neurons and your brain’s regions.
Gray matter, on the other hand, consists of incredibly dense and compacted nerve cell bodies that operate your brain’s higher cognitive functions. Grey matter regulates the decisions you make, the speed of your thought processes, and your overall thinking.
What acute or prolonged stress does is that it hardens your brain’s wires, which results in an excess of the Myelin sheath or white matter. It’s perfectly healthy to have white matter but when it grows in excess, what happens is that it slows down all of your brain’s electrical circuity.
This means your brain’s different regions are taking longer to communicate with one another, resulting in a distinct decline in cognitive functions. Think about the last time something horrible happened to you, do you remember not being able to focus or remember things as accurately?
That’s exactly what stress does to your brain during the moment that your adrenal glands release cortisol. Your body immediately begins shutting down unnecessary processes that do not aide in the immediate physical danger. Meaning essential parts of your brain such as the hippocampus or memory center shut off and your ability to learn is halted.
This is certainly a great evolutionary mechanism that we evolved to have, however, we no longer experience constant physical threats like a tiger trying to eat us.
So what happens in modern-day society, is that when we feel threatened or agitated with a non-life threading encounter, our bodies go into this fight or flight response and then don’t know how to turn it off.
Turning Off The Switch
Psychologist Alia Crum and her research team at Yale University discovered that in order to avoid stress taking over your life and dominating you, your thoughts and beliefs must change.
Crum goes on to say that how we view stress, primarily affects how our brains change. Meaning if we only see stress as something horrible and react in that form, then a thought loop will occur and every stressful event that you encounter will send your brain into a frenzy.
Instead, Crum recommends understanding that stress can be helpful in allowing you to grow and develop internally. When research patients were tested with this mindset, all of a sudden, the things that used to cause so much stress, no longer had the impact that they once did.
And so I leave you with this, view the world through rose-colored lenses and you will find that stress may be a killer but can also propel you forward. It’s all about how YOU react, not the nature of the stress.
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